Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Fleeing the Spiral of Drug-Related Violence

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 15 2007 (IPS) - “I left because it was unbearable, the ‘narcos’ had threatened us, and I don’t know if I’ll go back. I don’t want to get killed,” said a campesino from the central-western Mexican state of Michoacán who has been living in the capital since November.

“Please don’t mention my name, I don’t want those thugs to find me here. They’re really dangerous,” he said in an interview with IPS.

The campesino (peasant farmer) is one of many, perhaps hundreds, of people displaced by the growing drug trade-related violence in Mexico, a phenomenon that is just starting to become visible.

The “war” between the military, police and drug traffickers in Mexico has left a record number of casualties – more than 1,000 – since January, as well as around 50 complaints of human rights violations by the security forces, including arbitrary arrests, beatings and unjustified searches.

The number of victims between 2000 and 2006 was estimated at 9,000 by a Chamber of Deputies study. The great majority of the victims are men and women linked to the drug mafias, although dozens of police officers, 134 members of the military and around 20 journalists have also been killed.

If the military are not prepared to respect human rights while taking part in the fight against drug trafficking, then they should return to the barracks, the president of the governmental National Human Rights Commission, José Luis Soberanes, said Tuesday.

Soberanes said he had received 52 complaints against military personnel involved in the war on drugs, including a reported rape of a 17-year-old girl, and several arbitrary detentions.

Although no statistics are available on the displaced, observers say they number in the hundreds, although it is difficult to distinguish those who have fled the drug-related violence from the traditional rural-to-urban migration flows, or from the steady flux of migrants to the United States.

“I have no doubt that there are very many people who have been displaced by the violence of the drug traffickers. But this shouldn’t be used as another argument to justify the militarisation of the country and the consequent chain of human rights abuses,” Fabián Sánchez, director of the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, told IPS.

“The government will use any argument to say that the current militarisation process is legitimate and that it is what the people want and need, when in fact what is happening is that there are zones of military occupation where human rights don’t exist any more, because people are arrested and searches are carried out without any warrant,” said Sánchez.

The drug mafias have responded with unusual aggressiveness since conservative President Felipe Calderón ordered the deployment of thousands of troops to different parts of Mexico a month after taking office in December, to reassert state control over territory where drug traffickers have a strong influence, and to curb the violence.

A 1996 Supreme Court decision established a legal precedent for the military to take part in policing duties.

Unknown gunmen killed José Nemesio, head of the National Centre of Planning, Analysis and Information for the Combat of Crime, in Mexico City on Monday.

Although Nemesio, an intelligence expert who investigated drug and migrant smuggling and other questions, was the highest-ranking police official killed since Calderón became president, he is just one of dozens of members of the police and the military killed in the past few years in drug-related murders.

“Drug traffickers are defying the state at an intolerable level, which means the only possible response was to use a force equivalent to their own power of attack – the armed forces,” Guillermo Garduño, an expert on security and the military at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.

Garduño said many people have been displaced by threats from drug trafficking groups, and complained that the phenomenon has not been covered by the media. He also argued that this points to the loss of state control over swathes of territory, which requires “determined intervention” by the government.

The campesino who spoke to IPS lived in Michoacán, where143 people have died so far this year in drug-related killings, since he was a little boy. But after receiving threats from drug traffickers, he and his wife sold their 15 hectares of land, and are now working in the capital, although he did not want any information revealed about where they are living or what their jobs are.

“They came to the countryside, armed, a lot of them very young, but really aggressive,” he said. “They told us that if we planted marijuana they would pay us good money, but that if we didn’t, we would have to live with the consequences. They threatened us over and over again, so we decided we had better leave.”

Calderón has called for national unity in the war against drug trafficking, which he warned will be “long and painful.”

But opposition lawmakers, human rights groups and some experts argue that there can be no unity behind a wrongheaded strategy that fails to put the accent on intelligence work and instead relies too heavily on the armed forces, when it should be the police who are in charge.

However, political scientist Denise Dresser at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico believes that some politicians have criticised Calderón’s strategy merely to gain political benefit and trip up the government. Her advice is that the fight against drug trafficking not be transformed into a political battle as well.

But Sánchez said society and the country’s politicians “cannot sit back with their arms crossed when the government is merely relying on the use of force, by calling out the army.”

“The problem is that nothing is being done to improve the police forces, clean them up so that they can effectively fight the drug traffickers, reform the justice system and improve the living conditions of millions of people,” added the activist.

The Calderón administration says it is working on all of these fronts, but argues in its defence that many of them are long-term undertakings that will take time. In the meantime, it says, the state’s grip on the national territory cannot be renounced, and drug traffickers cannot be negotiated with.

Using that argument, it created a new security unit on May 9. The Cuerpo de Fuerzas de Apoyo Federal will be made up of 3,500 elite troops who will be trained to deal with “critical situations of disturbances of social peace and public security” says the government decree that created the new force.

Mexican drug traffickers, who work in coordination with cartels from Colombia and other drug-producing countries, smuggle a large part of the illegal drugs consumed in the United States, the world’s biggest market for drugs.

The government and independent observers alike attribute the exponential increase in violence to a war between the drug trafficking organisations over control of access routes to the United States and over local markets in Mexico, where demand is growing.

“With his misguided strategy, Calderón is putting society at risk,” argued Sánchez. “People now not only have to protect themselves from the drug traffickers, but also from the military who can arrest anyone without a warrant, violating their rights.”

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